‘A sapper’s letters to his mother’

This is the title of an important collection of letters recently acquired by the Royal Commonwealth Society department, RCMS 356. The author was the Royal Engineer, Colonel Hugh Pearson (1873-1922), who dutifully wrote weekly letters home to his mother throughout an extraordinary career. Students of imperial history will find much of interest in Pearson’s writings. Highlights include famine relief in India, fighting in the Khyber Pass during the Tirah campaign (1897-1898), and engineering work at Peking [Beijing] during the Boxer Rebellion (1900-1902).

Gun in the Mongol Market (adjoining the British Legation), Peking, 1900. RCS Y30377B/10

During the First World War, Pearson served in Sudan and Palestine. He organised refugee camps for Armenians fleeing the Ottoman Empire and was decorated for his work with the Desert Mounted Corps, which defeated the Turks and captured Jerusalem. Posted for many years to Sudan, Pearson became a leader of Khartoum society, organising sporting, musical and theatrical events. He met many prominent figures on the world stage, including Lord Kitchener and Theodore Roosevelt. One of Pearson’s most memorable experiences occurred during 1917, when he travelled to Addis Ababa to present Regent Tafari Makonnen, the future Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, with the Grand Order of St. Michael and St. George. He recorded a vivid account of the event:

‘The Prime Minister and two other principal officers of state came to the Legation with several hundred warriors to escort us to the Palace. Coach horns, bugles etc. supplied the music. We were all in full dress, scarlet tunics etc., and the procession made the most wonderful Kaleidoscope of colour imaginable. At the front there were a hundred or two ordinary soldiers in white with their rifles and swords, then three mounted officers in gold embroidered coats of blue, red, green, with lion’s mane over their shoulders and head dress, and silver and gold ornaments hanging over their foreheads. Then twenty or thirty men with various coloured head dresses and sheep skins dyed yellow hanging over their shoulders and right down their backs… and the three ministers in gorgeous robes heavily studded with gold and… lion’s mane head dresses heavily studded with diamonds and precious stones, and shields the same, semicircular swords in gold and velvet scabbards… we dismounted outside the throne room, put the G.C.M.G., Jewel, Collar, and belt on a cloth of gold cushion… entered together, bowed to the throne and [Envoy Extraordinary Wilfred] Thesiger made his little speech and clasped on the Jewel’.

Pearson reported a humorous exchange when being asked his age by Tafari Makonnen, who did not believe his reply, ‘What a dear old gentleman, but how absurd of him to say he is only 44. He must at least be 56’.  Pearson also visited the Regent’s wife, who offered him champagne and biscuits, and then went to see her eight lions being fed.

Pearson, 5 and 11 Apr. 1917

For a second post see ‘A sapper’s letters to his mother’ II.]

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